Opinion

Striking from School for the Climate: A Big Lesson for Schools

In recent years, school strikers demanding climate justice have challenged the education system. Researchers Dr Blanche Verlie and Alicia Flynn consider activism as a form of learning, and the implications of the climate crisis on schooling. 

Image by School Strike 4 Climate, via Flickr.

In August 2018, a 15-year-old Swedish school girl, Greta Thunberg went on strike from school, demanding the Swedish Parliament act to radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Students around the world began, and continue, to strike from school once a week under the moniker Fridays for Future, demanding climate justice. Since mid-2018, this global movement known in Australia as School Strike 4 Climate (SS4C) has organised large, global, coordinated strikes that have mobilised millions of people in hundreds of countries.   

One oft-used school striker placard reads, “we are skipping our lessons to give you one” and Thunberg et al.1 argue striking is “the biggest lesson of all”. Relatedly, students who have survived floods and fires hold signs pointing out that some young people can’t go to school because their schools have been destroyed by climate change.  

Listen: Dr Blanche Verlie discusses the school climate strikes on ABC Sydney Radio. 

The millions of school children around the world getting organised, walking out of their classrooms and striking in the streets inspired us to wonder: what if education is not the solution, but part of the problem?  

Many educators (including us) have thought that the knowledge and skills we help young people develop are a meaningful way of addressing social and environmental issues. Indeed, education, especially environmental and climate change education, are among the most commonly named ‘solutions’ to the climate crisis. However, as Orr has argued, our ecocidal global socio-economic systems (namely colonial-capitalism) are “largely the result of work by people with BAs, BSs, LLBs, MBAs and PhDs”2 and “more of the same kind of education will only compound our problems”3. Of concern to us is the reality that under the conditions of climate anxiety, students have felt that walking away from school literally and symbolically is the most agentic thing they could do for ecological justice.  

At the start of 2020, just as the COVID-19 pandemic was unfolding, we placed the call for submissions for a special issue of the Australian Journal of Environmental Education to provide a space to closely consider the educational dimensions of the school strikes.  

The resulting special issue contains 12 articles, including many authored by research students, and two co-authored by School Strike 4 Climate leaders. 

Watch the special issue’s launch video, and hear about all the research articles in the collection.  

One of the most significant themes of the collection is the affective dimensions of climate injustice: students are striking because they are terrified of the future they are inheriting and horrified by the unequal implications for other bodies human and non-human around the world. In solidarity with, and having learned from, BIPOC climate activism, school strikers consciously advocate for climate justice which focuses on how the impacts of climate change affect disadvantaged and marginalised people “first and worst”.5 These complex injustices generate intense emotions such as anxiety and anger in young people, which can be paralysing but can also catalyse and sustain school strike action.  

A second theme in the collection is that strikers learn through their participation in striking, often in stark contrast to the insufficient climate change education taught in schools. Research published in this issue shows how young people are learning a dynamic suite of skills and critically applied knowledge when striking from school.  

A third commonality is that young people are becoming climate change educators. Not only have the young people involved in the strikes been learning, they have also been teaching themselves and others, from their peers, to parents, teachers, communities, politicians and scholars.  

Taken together, these latter two findings demonstrate that striking from school does not equate to rejecting education. Rather, students are leaving schools where they are not learning what they need and instead teaching themselves outside of school where they are generating emergent transformative and critical literacies as well as leadership skills. While conservative politicians such as Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison have argued that we need “more learning, and less activism, in schools”,6 the admonishable situation is that there has been little meaningful, effective and affective climate change learning available in school. 

Read The Sydney Morning Herald’s article about this research collection, and how education is “failing” kids on climate change.  

A fourth matter addressed in this special issue is the complex political terrain that school strikers navigate in order to fight for their futures. All climate activists are faced with the pervasive petro-industrial complex of colonial-capitalism. However, youth climate activists face additional political structures that inhibit their democratic participation, which is further amplified when their roles as school students are added into the mix. Further, school strikers are patronised through paternalistic structures that ostensibly exist to protect them, both institutional policies and cultural narratives. 

The papers in this special issue explore how schooling is failing students in multiple ways in the face of the climate crisis. Not only is it not (adequately) teaching them what they need to know, it is constraining their cultural and political agency and affect, and as such is foreclosing on inter-generational justice. In response to these foundational challenges to the legitimacy of education, a fifth theme in the papers in the issue is a call to ‘reimagine education’ in diverse ways, including through fundamentally rethinking what education could and should be.  

Climate change is widely framed as an existential crisis, and we argue that this must be recognised also as an existential crisis of and for education. The very notion that young people are driven to strike from school because of widespread climate inaction is a deep challenge to foundational assumptions about the purposes and values of education, including the idea that education has young people’s best interests at heart and is helping prepare them to flourish in the future.  

Schools are critical sites where climate politics are being articulated and contested, and where new futures are being imagined. As the papers in this issue demonstrate, despite the barriers posed by adult structures, young people’s prefigurative activism imagines and enacts other worlds and demands that we take youth-led education for climate-justice seriously.  

Listen to Alicia Flynn and School Strike 4 Climate leader Varsha Yajman discussing the school strikes on RRR radio (from about 46 minutes in).  

Strikers proclaim that “activism is learning” but their actions also assert that learning must be activism given what is at stake. It is time for education to reckon with its role in the climate crisis and its entanglement within colonial-capitalist extractivism. Ideally, the transformative response is to reorient educational structures, practices and relations towards those that sustain life on Earth and support the young (of all species) to survive in what is becoming an increasingly volatile Earth system.  

We call on educators and education scholars to use our differential positions of privilege and power to influence others inside and outside education; to take the political agency of young people seriously; and to allow ourselves to be influenced by, responsive to, and supportive of, young people, as we collectively work to cultivate climate-just worlds.  

This is an edited version of the introduction to the special issue of the Australian Journal of Environmental Education. Find the whole issue here. 

References 

1. Thunberg, G., Taylor, A., Neubauer, L., Gantois, K., Wever, A.D., Charlier, A., & Villasenor, A. (2019, March 15). Think we should be at school? Today’s climate strike is the biggest lesson of all. The Guardian, Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/mar/15/school-climate-strike-greta-thunberg.
2. Orr, D.W. (1991). What is education for? In Context. Retrieved from http://www.context.org/iclib/ic27/orr/.
3. Orr (1991).
4. White, P. J., Ferguson, J. P., O’Connor Smith, N., & O’Shea Carre, H. (2022). School strikers enacting politics for climate justice: Daring to think differently about education. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 38(1), 26-39. doi:10.1017/aee.2021.24; Tattersall, A., Hinchliffe, J., & Yajman, V. (2022). School strike for climate are leading the way: how their people power strategies are generating distinctive pathways for leadership development. Australian Journal of Environmental Education, 38(1), 40-56. doi:10.1017/aee.2021.23
5. Seed Indigenous Youth Climate Network (2022). Our story. Retrieved from https://www.seedmob.org.au/our_story.
6. Australian Associated Press. (2018). Scott Morrison tells students striking over climate change to be ‘less activist’. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/26/scott-morrison-tells-students- striking-over-climate-change-to-be-less-activist